Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Wae Grandmother

Since arriving in Korea five and a half days ago we’ve already been in two traffic accidents. The first was driving to Chagalchi fish market in JungMin’s eight passenger mini-van when a tipsy, red faced businessman rear ended us and dropped our bumper right next to a wooden cart full of dried squid. The second was today. Xi’an and I were heading to a mountain pagoda that overlooks the city and our taxi rammed a motorbike at a red light, pinning the rider to the ground. The old man was shaken, and I could tell by the wild look in his eyes he was in shock, pulling up his delivery Yamaha and spinning a busted side mirror like a whirly gig, then revving the engine, darting to the curb, and crashing into a bus stop and toppling over again. That’s when Xi’an and I split, me hoisting my eldest daughter atop my shoulders and preferring the safety of my own two feet. I tried to explain it this way, “We’re in a foreign country now, sweetheart. And life here is cheap. We’ve got to keep our eyes peeled.”
“Is that because we’re world travelers?” Xi’an asked. And I know. I’m totally guilty as charged. I’ve been pumping my daughter’s head full of my own dreams, calling her a “child vagabond” and “international hobo” ever since she first stepped off an airplane at nine months. I tickle her ribs as we leave the two screaming men on the sidewalk bumping bellies like red faced sumo wrestlers arguing who is going to pay for the damages, “That’s right, kid. Anything can happen.” To which my daughter answered, “It’s okay, daddy, I won’t cry.”
The comment catches me off guard.
You see. One of the challenges my wife and I are facing as parents is how to raise our three daughters to be individuals. It comes down to this fundamental difference between Korea and America girl identity. SungJoo wants to raise princesses in pink skirts and pink hair bands who practice pretty-girl smiles in the mirror and I want to raise tomboys in jeans and Chuck Taylor’s that climb trees and have mud fights. Right now, Queen SungJoo is winning, and I’m drowning in this weird world of pastels and lace and miniskirts and lip gloss and I don’t like it. Don’t get me wrong, I can wear a tiara and throw a lovely tea party with the best of them, but I think all this overt Asian girlliness is having an alien type effect on my daughter’s psyche.
Let me be specific. It’s spoiling my daughters rotten. Case in point. Fake crying. Xi’an fake cries at everything. I say fake cry, but really I must clarify because there are degrees and variances. First there are the fake shrieks, best described as a fire house siren going off in my ear and are elicited when there is a toy in the store she is not allowed to have or when the toothpaste falls off the brush into the abyss of the icky sink. She looks at me, waits for my reaction, which is usually nothing, then she commences the waterworks. Second there are the Gasping Bursts, these sound like long sustained banshee howls, but differ in the quick pauses between where she fills her tiny lungs with air before peeling the wall paper. Again there is usually some contrived catastrophe associated with this: Her hair pin has slipped off or the cocoa has gotten cold. Next there are the convulsions. These demand ten to fifteen minute hugs and occur dozens of times daily by coddling Korean Grandparents who scold me for letting her lay on the ground writhing like a fish dropped into a boat: “Son-in-law, how can you let her just cry when she is so upset? She will have a mental breakdown. In Confucian culture…..”
These are the worst because not only must I suffer the ear splitting screams of a tantrum throwing, fist punching, and floor kicking child, but the indignity of my Korean in-laws telling me I am the one to blame for allowing it to run its course. I could elaborate more, but you get the picture. At times I’m raising this spoiled princess with attitude and something got to give.
I tell my daughter, crying is good, crying is okay. Like when the wind is scary, or when you crash your bike, when you fall out of a tree, or you see something so beautiful that you want to save it but you can’t. Those are okay times to cry. But not when the doughnut falls on the floor or the red racing car shopping cart is occupied and we must use the old rickety metal ones- sheesh!
Xi’an agrees. “Daddy, don’t worry. I won’t cry… if we stop for ice cream.” And so on it goes.
The night before the entire family piles into the bumperless mini-van and we head to So-Myun, this mega shopping and commerce subway hub with blaring neon lights and traffic and back alleys of sprawling night life, to meet SungJoo’s maternal Wae Grandmother. She is almost eighty years old now and suffers from a number of ailments, most notably, a serve heart, broken by years of devastating loss and tragedy. SungJoo has always had a mysterious and mournful relationship with her Wae Grandmother. When she was ten, my wife’s parents set her to Pusan to live with the old woman who was then the owner of a restaurant in a seedy outskirt of the city. Each night after school, SungJoo would sit in a corner of the kitchen and finish her homework and watch her Grandmother get drunk with the men and bang chopsticks on bottles and clap spoons and sing about her misfortunate life. Then when all the customers had gone home and SungJoo helped clean the tables and wash the floor and scrape all the pots and pans, Wae Grandmother would get even more drunk and weep about being the second wife to an abusive drunk and how her first son drank rat poison and how her second son couldn’t hold a job or a woman and how her baby daughter was married to a doctor who didn’t love her and SungJoo would curl up under one of the low tables and cover her ears until she put her passed out Grandmother on her back and carried her home. This lasted for two years until SungJoo’s parents moved from the island of NamHae to Pusan and rescued her from this life.
But SungJoo never forgot.
And since I have asked my wife every story of her life and since she is the subject of my first book, Me Gook, I now know these stories too, and somehow carry their sadness as well.
Tonight we gather in another restaurant, and this time everyone in the family is there: SungJoo’s mother and father, who have spent the day with our little Lauren Kinu tied to their back pacing the apartment that overlooks the sea; her married sister EunJo and husband JungMin and their two babies who have decided not to return to Seoul even though it crams up the rooms but because it is Korean style to stay; MinJoo, the baby of the family at 34, who rolls her eyes dramatically when she speaks and has a different ring tone for all her friends and turns her head when she takes a sip in front of me because I am older and her sister’s husband. Then there is SungJoo’s unmarried sister EunJong, who vacations in Guam and skies at Sorak mountain and tells me, “Oh, Older Brother, I am 35, who would ever want me now?” And I laugh and tell her she is just entering her prime. Then there is my wife’s aunt. Imo still looks like she stepped out of a high school photograph despite her hard life, escaping an abusive drunkard husband and living for three years in hiding. Her eldest son was in a mental institution because he kept seeing ghosts on the street and in the classroom and the doctors though he was either crazy or just trying to avoid military service and so they locked him up either way.
Then there was Wae Grandmother.
She arrives last, walking in very slowly and stooped low, her back curved like the arch of a question mark. Her hair is all gray now and unkept, the kind of strands that awake that way without a brush. She is dressed in silken pants tucked into socks and bundles of sweaters she unwraps like an onion. I remember meeting her for the first time when SungJoo sent me to her for answers, years ago when I was just a boy and had so many questions about the world. Now I smile and bow very low and she takes my face in her hands and she is crying and blessing me, “Oh, our son-in-law is here. Oh, look at Brian’s face. He has not changed. He has not changed at all.”
At first Wae Grandmother terrifies my daughters. Her teeth are made of metal and wood and her face is covered with brown splotches and pock marks and when she smiles her mouth opens like a Dokebi, one of the mythical creatures that live beneath bridges and eat little children in Korean fairy tales. But soon Lauren Kinu is smiling and resting on her back and Rebekah Bidan gives her a kiss. Only Xi’an will not go near her, huddled in my lap, she whispers, “Daddy, that old woman scares me. I don’t want to.”
This is when I tell Xi’an the stories about her mother’s bravery. How I remember meeting SungJoo when she had nothing. When she lost her teaching job and stumbled luckily into Nike. How she somehow managed to be transferred back to America where she just walked into the office and made something of herself. How she became an American citizen and is now returning to Korean not as one of these woman that doesn’t have any hope, that takes abuse from drunken men, that laugh demurely behind cupped hands in coffee shops because they are supposed to be pretty little princesses that never get sweaty or dirty or pissed off or value intelligence over beauty. I know, it’s a lot for a kid almost five years old to handle, but Xi’an is used to her Daddy speaking to her like an adult and she understands and gets up and without me having to ask she walks over to Wae Grandmother and gives her a hug and sits down in her lap. Everyone is smiling now because a child’s love translates more powerful y than any human language could and SungJoo’s mother is wiping her eyes with a white handkerchief and SungJoo’s Aunt is doing the same and Wae Grandmother’s face is gushing these long streaming tears as she breaks out into this melancholy song about a woman who is looking for her lost child in the mountain and Xi’an asks, “Daddy, why is everyone crying?” And from across the table I reach over and take her hand, “It’s okay. They’re laughing. That’s how Koreans show joy.”
The next morning as we were are walking away from the car accident I stop at a little grocery store and let Xi’an dig away into the ice box for any creamy sandwich bar, popsicle, or chocolate drumstick she wants. In the Korean wintertime the sky is this deep blue, they describe it as being, “High as a horse’s tail”, but the wind is still blisteringly hostile and I hoist Xi’an and her strawberry cone on my shoulders and we walk down the street back toward the apartment overlooking the sea. We’ll save our adventure with the mountain pagoda for another day I explain as we pass Chinese pharmacies and restaurants with funny statues and beauty salons and car repair stores and bus stops and taxi stands. We climb up the Yoogyoo, a big pedestrian bridge that crosses the highway and Xi’an and I stop in the middle with all the cars racing beneath us and the immense buildings crowding around the horizon and the blue sky and we nibble ice cream and talk.
“Life is Asia is really difficult, isn’t it Daddy?”
I nod.
“But we’re travelers and we could go home whenever we want, right?”
“Sure peanut. Anytime we want.”
I watch my daughter take a monstrous bite into the ice cream and pull back with a gob of strawberry on her nose. We both laugh and do Eskimo faces. The rush of delivery trucks drown our ears and the roar of city life around us is deafening. It wouldn’t matter anyway, because I have no way of explaining to a four year old how we are home. Right now, together. So I just let her be a kid. I’ll save that conversation for later, when we both feel like laughing.


  1. Hartenstein, you made me tear up...

  2. H.

    Xian is so adorable. It sounds like she is adjusting well to the big move. I'm happy but I miss her cute face and funny comments. Enjoy it! Even if you have to wear a tiara for many more years...